User-Generated Play: Toy Companies Encourage Kids to Create Personalized Content

July 7, 2014 |Personalized playthings that let kids express their active imaginations and singular tastes are enjoying immense popularity — in fact, the Toy Industry Association (TIA) named “Custom Built” as one of the top toy trends of 2014. Recognizing the growing demand for custom playthings, some toy companies are taking the trend one step further by encouraging consumers to submit their own ideas and designs for unique toys — be it virtual game worlds or physical products — that can be downloaded or purchased by others around the world.  

“Encouraging kid-generated content allows children to tap into their creativity and play exactly how they want to play, whether they are having fun with arts & crafts, designing their own dolls or plush, or building new virtual worlds,” said TIA toy trend specialist Adrienne Appell. “This is an important, growing trend that will continue to have a tremendous impact on the future of toys and gaming.”

Last year saw the launch of Disney Infinity, an action-adventure video game that lets players virtually transport figurines of their favorite Disney and Marvel characters into the game. Since then, its Toy Box feature — which allows players to custom-design game worlds as well as download others’ creations — has become an integral aspect of the game play. About 12 million customized Toy Boxes have been downloaded to date.     

“It’s about empowering players to build and create and become the Disney storyteller,” said Disney Infinity Executive Producer John Vignocchi.

 Disney hosts a webcast that highlights and celebrates the best of the 5,000 to 7,000 user-generated Toy Boxes that are submitted each week. Disney Infinity 2.0, which is slated to launch this fall, includes Toy Box enhancements, such as users’ ability to search for worlds specifically designed for certain characters, and vote on their favorite Boxes.  

“I believe this generation of players, whether they’re on the digital screen or playing inside their own living room, expects a level of customization in order to feel ownership and pride over what they have,” Vignocchi said.

LEGO is also getting into the digital toy game. The company recently announced the launch of LEGO Fusion, an app-based game that continually prompts kids to build structures out of physical bricks, which are then scanned and imported into the game. Fusion will enable builders to safely share their customized buildings and towns via the LEGO MyFriend system, and challenge their friends to see whose tower is the strongest, or whose car races the fastest.

“Sophisticated content creation is no longer reserved for specialists,” said Michael McNally, senior director of brand relations for LEGO Systems.  “Children’s bedrooms have become creative publishing studios, so the expectation surrounding customization, personalization and ‘make-it-mine’ experiences is at an all-time high.”

LEGO currently engages fans in contests to create original content for their brands, such as MINDSTORMS. Users can also submit original concepts for a LEGO product through a platform called LEGO Ideas; once the idea receives 10,000 community supporters, the model is considered for production.

University Games also recently launched a contest for original board game ideas as part of its National Young Game Inventors Contest; the winner will have the opportunity to have their game manufactured and included in the company’s 2015 product lineup.

Similarly, Arklu, a British toy company, holds monthly social media outfit design contests for its Lottie Doll line — a doll based on the actual proportions of a 9-year-old girl. The superhero outfit competition this past May received hundreds of submissions from around the world; the winner (Lilly, age 6, from Kirtland, Ohio) will see her creation manufactured and commercially available this August, with her original artwork design, first name, age, and hometown displayed on the packaging. 

“It allows kids the ability to use their imaginations and creativity. They can make these items their own, something not everyone else has. It makes it personal for them and special for their parents,” said Arklu Co-Founder Lucie Follet. “It is giving kids an opportunity to have their ideas recognized and gives them confidence in their ideas and abilities. Having that recognition is a key component in instilling that confidence from a very early age.”

The My Own Monsters line from the North American Bear Company features 17 plush characters, each designed by an employee’s child. The concept behind the collection is to enable children to design comforting playthings that help other kids overcome common childhood anxieties. The monsters range from a Band Aid-covered creature to a cat with long claws; each one comes with a corresponding story written by the child who designed it. 

North American Bear also offers a Make My Own Monster Design Kit, which lets kids sketch their own one-of-a-kind custom plush creature that is then handmade in the company’s New York design studio.

“Children love having a toy they designed that is exclusively their own which, of course, creates a lasting bond that transforms it into a treasured keepsake once the play value is outgrown,” said Lorene Shiraiwa, public relations manager for North American Bear. “With the tougher economic climate in recent years, adult gift buyers increasingly want gifts for children that have lasting appeal and strong play value.  It’s not so much about quantity or lavishness of gifts as it is about the play longevity and/or perceived keepsake quality that guide purchases of children’s toy gifts today.” 

 More information about emerging trends within the toy space as well as in other industries that often influence the toy aisle can be found on ToyInfo.org.